Writing your series seems like real security to many writers. And it is if only for the limited time it is profitable for the publisher. It is like steady employment with a more or less reliable income that is a rarity in this extremely iffy chicken or feathers world. No better examples of the (rare) extreme high end of that than J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and James Patterson’s steady stream of books as himself and as little Jimmy Patterson. On the (extremely) modest end, my own Sebastian (Super Sleuth) series during its fourteen-book run for children financed college, cars and home renovations that my family would otherwise not have.
 Series are popular with writers because their sales are predictable. You grow a built-in base of loyal fans that are as attached to your characters as you are. As their creator, you view the characters as old friends. You know just how they’d react in any situation. Instead of starting from scratch creating the characters and setting, you have only the adventure and “guest” characters to figure out.
If we create characters that are unique yet universal and understandable yet complicated enough to appeal to readers we often are not ready to let go of them just because they had one experience. We imagine them in various other situations and start thinking series. If we are lucky, our readers feel that way too. Some even write asking what they are doing now as if they are real people. I just completed reading a series of twelve generational books on three families and how they interact, and I feel like asking, “What? Is that it?”
You’ll find series in non-fiction or fiction for children, teens, and adults in nearly all genres. Some are house-generated and have many different authors. But for this article, we’ll stick to self-created series fiction. The market books I’ve looked at do not have specific listings for publishers who take series ideas. We must assume that they do consider them unless they state that they do not. That is why we use queries! Browse on-line booksellers and your area libraries, and you’ll find a plethora of romance, mystery and suspense, and science fiction series among others. Mysteries—cozies, romantic thrillers and cold-blooded—flood the market, but if they weren’t popular with readers, there wouldn’t be so many coming out weekly.
Romance and combination mystery/romance series are equally abundant. They vary from waiting for the first kiss on the last page through subtle suggestion in Sarah Graves’ Jacobia Tiptree mysteries to the overt and frequent scenes in the Arcane Society books written by Jayne Anne Krentz using her pseudonyms Amanda Quick and Jayne Castle depending on the era.
Coming up with a unique character and situation may seem like a daunting assignment, but you are limited only by your imagination. Domestic crafts are popular backdrops for women’s mysteries, especially the cozies, where any romance is a la ‘50’s or altogether absent. There is certainly more than one female character baking cupcakes or working in a flower shop and sleuthing on the side.
You’ll find needlecraft and kitchen skills are popular and oft-used occupations. There are so many it’s a wonder they don’t bump into each other and join forces to fight crime. What is your special interest? Just because Tolle painting or macramé is old hat to you doesn’t mean it won’t be interesting to the rest of us. These help round out a character and offer breaks between snooping. Could making little houses from Popsicle sticks or creating celebrity portraits from dryer lint be the next craze? If you discover that you have selected the main character with an oft-used occupation you can always create something unique about him or her, perhaps she is wheelchair-bound or hang-glider or can read lips—you decide.
Teasing a publisher into committing to multiple contracts may be a hard sell before the first book proves that it is a success. It is especially difficult if you don’t already have some trade credits establishing you as a steady producer. My editor told me that it may take three books before they know for sure that a series could be a successful series. They must see that the second and third books sell better each time and also cause the new fans to purchase back copies. You will need to have a complete first manuscript and a detailed chapter outline for the second book plus at least a third summary for your third. Having at least short summaries of other ideas will demonstrate that you are thinking ahead, and one of those may appeal more to your editor who is familiar with the tastes of those who frequent their books. Every publisher has an individual identity, or as they are fond of saying these days, a platform.
You may need to convince the publisher that yours is similar enough to be a good fit for their list but different enough to stand out. And fair or not, being “as good as” won’t be enough to break in. Yours must be better. Furthermore, once you have the first one out you will be competing not only with other authors but with yourself.
You may get a first book contract with an option clause to buy future books featuring the same character. It’s a buyer’s market. Like any gamble, the odds are always in the house’s favor. Your original editor may leave, and her replacement is less than enthusiastic about continuing, or the house has new owners who decide to go in a different direction. It has happened to me. It has happened to others. Don’t despair. Soft drink cans aren’t the only thing recyclable.
With a few adjustments J. J. Leggett for first readers became Deke in the “Determined Detectives” for skilled readers early readers, and then became a slightly older Fenton P. Smith in “Undercover Detectives” for middle readers with different houses. The Goosehill Gang after a fourteen book run recycled into the Sherlock Street Detectives with the same editor at a different house and no one was the wiser. As for ideas I simply consulted my original list of ideas and decided how a slightly different personality would handle them. Who knows? Someday Sebastian might morph into a cat that can solve all those unused ideas when Simon & Schuster swallowed Macmillan. But first, we have to convince a publisher that 1) the series is right for them, and 2) you are capable of generating at least two a year.
Series characters of yesteryears were less dimensional than other main characters. Even now you’ll find a few throwbacks where the woman solves mysteries just because she enjoys it—no training, no responsibility, just curiosity. She gets in the way of the official police investigation and risks her life to assuage her curiosity. But you’re a better writer than that. Figure out a reason, a vested interest in finding the solution—love of someone wrongly accused, the need to prove one’s worth, something that makes it understandable to keep snooping when logic says to dial 911.
With so many amateur sleuths prowling the bookshelves, especially with similar occupations and lifestyles, it’s a good idea to add some reality to create a unique character that will stand out from the hundreds of series already published. Everyone has personal problems, whether it is a child with dyslexia or an ex-spouse who is behind on child support or can’t accept that it’s over. Real people have bad hair days and hangnails. Their vehicles break down, and their cell phones die. The need to read about characters that remind us of ourselves holds true even in our unsinkable series heroes and heroines, too.
                              NEXT: Part 2/Build-a-Kit to [Maybe] Convince a Publisher